In the world of choral music the increasingly higher standards reached in recent years by a number of chamber-sized choirs has been a hugely encouraging development. With every intention and capacity to join such an elite group is Glossa’s recent signing, the Vlaams Radio Koor from Belgium – the Flemish Radio Choir. Although the choir has been in existence for 70 years it is only in the last decade or so that it has been able to move itself from being an all-purpose studio-based operation for broadcasting purposes and raise its standards. Such is its success at home that it now acts as a catalyst for amateur choirs in the Flanders region in areas such as repertoire and performance. Additionally it is organizing projects which will be involving students from various Flemish music conservatories.
The choir joined Glossa earlier this year, presenting a challenging programme of music by Zoltán Kodály. The Hungarian composer’s Missa Brevis (and a selection of some of his lesser-known choral works) was conducted with masterly skill by the choir’s Principal Conductor Johan Duijck (a pupil of the naturalized Briton László Heltay, who had himself been a pupil of that moving spirit of Hungarian musical nationalism, Kodály). Duijck, in charge since 1996, has been credited with giving the choir a new self-confidence, capable of teaching the choir the most complex music, especially in contemporary music.
For its second SACD release on Glossa, the Choir has now turned its attention to another technically and interpretively demanding masterpiece in Sergei Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, asking one of its regular guest conductors, the Latvian-born Kaspars Putninsh, to direct. Putninsh has, in fact, been involved with the Choir since 2001, including performing Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil, the Vespers in six concerts with them in 2003.
The best way to find out what makes today’s Flemish Radio Choir (FRC) tick is by talking to Alain De Ley, the Choir’s Manager, who is both steeped in the ensemble’s history while excited by its present and future prospects.
“If I were to try and think of similar existing choirs, I would tend to think of the Netherlands Chamber Choir and/or the RIAS Kammerchor – although the sound of our choir, while always recognizable, is surprisingly flexible, due to the vast quantity of repertoire the choir has performed. Furthermore, the choir has recently recruited a large number of young professional singers, so the sound, although massive when necessary, is fresh, clear and transparent and above all homogeneous. This homogeneity is achieved by each singer adding the colour of his/her voice to the whole with the consciousness that each singer is a part of one voice. This can only be done if the singers listen to each other carefully at all times. Since the FRC consists of a fixed group of singers – currently 24 in permanent employment – we have had the opportunity to work on the sound with the same singers with very satisfying results.”
The FRC retains an impressive capacity to range over choral repertoire from around 1650 to the present day. De Ley comments that, “Throughout its history the FRC has performed a lot of Flemish and contemporary music, and will continue to do so in the future. In early repertoire, the FRC wants to present an alternative to the authentic early performance style. Without wishing to get into the argument about which performance style is the ‘correct’ way to perform music such as by Bach, we would like to present a performance style that, taking into account everything we’ve learned since the seventies about historical performance style and on how the music (probably) sounded when it was originally composed, places the music into a 21st century context. This means that we will not necessarily use authentic instruments, and that we will use a wider dynamic range in performing the music. At some point we will also combine the music with 21st century media such as video. We will also commission new works based on works by composers from the baroque (we have just commissioned a work from Sven-David Sandström based on Bach’s motet Fürchte dich nicht). Although an authentic performance style is useful, and even necessary, I am convinced this is not the only way to approach that repertoire. On the other hand we don’t want to go back to the very romantic way the music was performed in the 19th and early 20th century.”
Kaspars Putninsh, who is conducting this recording of Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is drawn to music from across the musical spectrum but especially with contemporary music from composers from his native Latvia such as Peteris Vasks or Maija Einfelde, adjoining Estonia (Toivo Tulev and Mirjam Tally) or indeed from other parts of the European map such as Giacinto Scelsi, Gavin Bryars, Kaija Saariaho or Jonathan Harvey. De Ley comments that, “Having grown up in the Slavonic traditions we felt that Kaspars was able to provide a special dimension to music of Rachmaninov, one that a Western conductor might not be able to achieve.
Of the Rachmaninov work Putninsh comments, “We know from history of creation of his Vespers and the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom that Rachmaninov’s knowledge about the Divine service, even the structure, was far from perfect. He was not a regular churchgoer himself. Many of the clerics of Russian Orthodox church approached both works with a big deal of suspicion, the music was too emotional, too sophisticated and, I guess, just too breathtakingly beautiful for the need of the church. Nevertheless, these magnificent choral works that speak of divine wonder of existence are witness of the deepest spirituality of a composer who in the bottom of his heart through all his life carried the memories of the sound of choir and bells, the smell of incense and images of icons and candlelight from the church in the Novgorod countryside where his grandmother often took him to attend church services while he was a small child.
“I think that a conductor attempting to perform the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom faces the problem of how Rachmaninov has structured the work. He has set in music all the words generally assigned to the choir in the liturgical service books of his time. This makes it possible to perform it in the context of Orthodox service but mounting of the concert performance or the record of the work requires considerations since not all of the portions of the Divine Liturgy are of equal musical interest; besides various elements of the Liturgy, some of the litanies for example completely loose their sense if performed out of the context of Divine service. On the other hand, reconstruction of the ritual on stage is not acceptable to Orthodox Christians. This is why there is no common way to structure the work.
“I have followed the advice given by Dr Vladimir Morosan, editor of the performing edition of Rachmaninov’s Divine Liturgy published by Musica Russica, excerpt that I have included the Invitation to Communion (last section of A Mercy of Peace) in this record thus offending the compromise – a practise omitting from concert performances the elements that pertain directly to the Eucharist itself. My feelings are that the Invitation to Communion form the heart of the Divine Liturgy, a quiet culmination Rachmaninov has been aware of structuring the whole work.”
by Mark Wiggins© 2006 Glossa Music / MusiContact